At some point, a cult following bursts. The secrecy that elevates the band’s underrated relevance is broken, its long-deserved appreciation is delivered via press coverage, and the fame fans once wanted for it feels exploited. Cult followings continue to exist because, to some extent, there’s a wanting of ownership, a need to identify talent and reap credit as the talent spotter. More often than not, though, cult followings come from a celebration of what’s cool without a regard to what’s popular.
We’ve seen this rise-before-the-explosion-of-acclaim endless times before—My Bloody Valentine, Neutral Milk Hotel, even Arcade Fire—within indie rock. Punk, however, seems more indebted to cult followings and the preservation of them. Bands uphold an importance regardless of the size of their fandom. Just look at Shonen Knife. The Japanese trio is 35 years deep in their punk rock career and they have yet to explode. Perhaps that’s for the best.
Back in 1981, sisters Naoko and Atsuko Yamano met with friend and bassist Michie Nakatani to create a band. Shonen Knife was formed with the intent to ignore J-pop’s rise and instead bring punk rock to their hometown of Osaka, Japan. They were rightfully unfazed by the dominance of all-male bands in the scene. Instead, they focused on positivity and idealistic lyrics—Naoko often sings about candy and cats—while their music blended the charm of ’60s pop groups like the Beach Boys with the straightforward grit of early punk rock acts like the Ramones.
Though a few member rotations occurred over the years, like Ritsuko Taneda replacing Nakatani on bass, Shonen Knife remains strong in its relevance and output, dropping 22 albums since then. “Risa plays the drums for her family band called Brinky,” explains Naoko. “She plays with her father and younger sister. They cover Shonen Knife songs a lot, actually. I met her when Brinky opened for one of our shows.” That member swap not only shows an acceptance of age differences but self-awareness and the ability to be at terms with your place in punk history.
This year’s full-length, the punchy Adventure, nods to the Runaways and Thin Lizzy while charging forward with the trio’s signature grin. Shonen Knife outlasts other punk bands in every way: the matching outfits onstage, the unremitting cheeriness, the DIY ethos, the cover song LPs. It’s the group’s songwriting, however, that continues its brand, and Naoko knows that. “I still write down key words when I get good motifs for my lyrics,” she says. “When I write songs, I expand it to lyrics and then put melody lines on them, because making melodies is rather easy.”
What the three do differently from other punk bands, however, is refuse to let age define them. Passing three and a half decades together is just as unexpected to Shonen Knife as it is to onlookers. “I just look forward and never look back, so I don’t have any conscious about being in a band so long,” says Naoko. “Our fans’ support makes me keep going. That, and that I especially do nothing … but I do play tennis for my health.”
Arguably the most critical part of a cult following is word of mouth. Go ahead and check that off here. Shonen Knife boasts the ability to impress different generations as the years pass, even when opening shows thousands of miles from its homeland—which, considering it toured alongside (and then influenced) bands like Nirvana and Sonic Youth, says a lot.
As it gears up to flood the Middle East Upstairs with volume-cranked happiness on Nov 9, the band promises to make good on the title of its newest LP. Those curious to find out what the band is about should attend. Those who already know what the band is about can confirm: Another adventure is on the way, and younger generations are lucky to witness it with their own eyes, though this may not be your last chance to see them. When asked what their best tour memory of the last 35 years is, Naoko speaks excitedly: “My favorite memory will be appear[ing] in the future!” It’s a call to action, a promise to make good on the energy the band constantly doles out, and a commitment to punk that DIY still runs on decades into the game.
SHONEN KNIFE, SHEPHERDESS, BIRTHING HIPS. WED 11.9. MIDDLE EAST UPSTAIRS, 472 MASS. AVE., CAMBRIDGE. 8PM/ALL AGES/$13. MIDEASTOFFERS.COM.